Levi Yitsḥaq of Berdichev
LEVI YITSḤAQ OF BERDICHEV
LEVI YITSḤAQ OF BERDICHEV (c. 1740–1810), was a Hasidic master and is one of the best-beloved figures of the east European Jewish folk tradition. Born into a distinguished rabbinical family, Levi Yitsḥaq joined the circle of disciples around Dov Ber of Mezhirich (Mie̜dzyrzecz, Poland) in 1766. He served as rabbi of Richwal, Żelechów, and Pinsk before being appointed to the important Ukrainian rabbinate of Berdichev in 1785. As both statutory rabbi and Hasidic rebe of that city for twenty-five years, he made Berdichev a center of Hasidic influence and played an important role as a leader of Russian Jewry. While in his earlier rabbinical positions he had been hounded by the mitnaggedim (the "opponents" of Hasidism; he was apparently deposed in both Żelechów and Pinsk), his strong position in Berdichev allowed him to serve as convener of rabbinical conferences, author of important communal legislation, and defender of Hasidism from attack. He also worked to ameliorate the oppression of the Jews by their newly acquired Russian masters, but to little avail. Better known are his reputed attempts to "storm the gates" of heaven, demanding of God, sometimes in harsh terms, that he better the lot of his beloved Israel. It is this image of Levi Yitsḥaq as defender of Israel and advocate of individual Jews before the heavenly tribunal that is especially prevalent in the later folk literature. The relationship between the Levi Yitsḥaq of these tales and the actual historical figure has yet to be tested.
Widely revered among the Ḥasidim even in his own day, Levi Yitsḥaq worked to stem the growing discord within the Hasidic movement at the turn of the nineteenth century. He served as intermediary in the disputes between his friend, Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady, and Barukh of Medzhibozh, as well as in Barukh's dispute with his own nephew, the young Naḥman of Bratslav.
The homilies of Levi Yitsḥaq, Qedushat Levi, were issued in two parts; the extended treatises on the meaning of Hanukkah and Purim were published during his lifetime (Slavuta, Ukraine, 1798), while the better-known treatment of the weekly Torah portions were edited after his death and appeared in Berdichev in 1811. This work was largely a popularization of Dov Ber's teachings but in a readable and homiletically creative setting.
Levi Yitsḥaq was a sounding board for all the major ideas of Dov Ber's circle, and all are well represented in Qedushat Levi. The call for ecstatic self-negation in devequt (communion with God) is adumbrated but is coupled with warnings about its potentially antinomian implications. Levi Yitsḥaq was well aware of the more radical implications of Hasidic teaching and sought to warn against them. Thus he places in the mouth of the snake in Eden the notion that because all things are created by God there can be no category of the forbidden; he saw the authority of the mitsvot (commandments) potentially challenged by the notion, so loudly and uncompromisingly proclaimed in the early Hasidic movement, that all is holy. He agreed with the elevation of the tsaddiq (holy man) to a place of primacy in Hasidic Judaism and speaks of the cosmic power such a figure has in the ongoing development of Torah. The sense of communal responsibility he felt as rabbi is frequently reflected in his homilies, in which there is also to be seen a touch of regret about the fate of his own intense spiritual life, as he was forced to devote his energies to communal matters.
The biography by Samuel H. Dresner, Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev: Portrait of a Hasidic Master (New York, 1974) retells the traditional tales but also contains notes of scholarly interest. Michael J. Luckens's "Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev" (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1974) surveys both the life and thought of Levi Yitsḥaq.
Blumenthal, David R. God at the Center: Meditations on Jewish Spirituality. San Francisco, 1988.
Klepfisz, Heszel. "Rabi Levi Itzjak Berdichever, maestro Jasidico del judaismo polaco." MEAH 29 (1980): 163–184.
Waintrater, Meïr. "Lévi-Yitzhak ou le sens migratoire." Genre Humain 19 (1989): 137–145.
Arthur Green (1987)
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